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A Glimmer of Hope in Central America

Eric L. Olson

Despite decades of foreign assistance to promote the rule of law in Central America, the results have been negligible until recently, when an innovative international mechanism in Guatemala led to a complex corruption investigation that forced the president’s resignation.

A Glimmer of Hope in Central America

Despite decades of U.S. assistance to strengthen the administration of justice and promote the rule of law in Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — the region continues to lag in reducing corruption and impunity. According to Iván Velásquez, head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, to use the Spanish acronym), it would take approximately 15 years to process all existing homicide cases in the country even if no new cases were opened. Roughly 85 percent of Guatemalan municipalities have no resident prosecutor.

In El Salvador, prisons are at 330 percent of capacity. Many of those detained for minor offenses, mostly youths accused of gang involvement, languish in detention facilities for months or years awaiting trial. To survive, they join prison gangs and get trapped in a life of crime and violence. In 2015, El Salvador had the world’s highest homicide rate at 103 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. In Guatemala and Honduras as well, backlogged justice systems have led to prison overcrowding.

In Honduras, political and economic elites have stolen an estimated $300 million from the country’s public health system, causing a shortage of medicines and allegedly contributing to the deaths of a dozen or more patients. A former president of Honduras was recently extradited to the United States for his role in the world soccer federation (FIFA) scandal, which allegedly netted him millions. A former vice president of Honduras and members of his family have been designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as “specially designated narcotics traffickers” for their role in laundering money for Central American drug trafficking organizations.

Submitting to justice had been the missing ingredient in efforts to promote the rule of law in Central America.

Corruption and weak rule of law in the Northern Triangle also harm Mexico, the Caribbean, and the United States, which confront the ensuing migration and transnational criminal activity. When scarce resources for infrastructure, schools, and health care are siphoned off by corrupt politicians tied to criminal networks, economic development is undermined and poverty worsens. Poverty and lack of opportunity contribute to increased violence and the sense of desperation that drives people to migrate. Additionally, the lack of rule of law and social disintegration are catalysts for more crime that, in turn, perpetuates the problems of economic decline and greater violence, and ultimately contributes to more migration.

A Glimmer of Hope in Guatemala

Against this dismal backdrop, it is difficult to find even a glimmer of hope. But that is exactly what appeared on September 2, 2015, when Otto Pérez Molina, the sitting president of Guatemala, was forced to resign amid allegations that he had participated in a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal. A day earlier, a reluctant congress had stripped President Pérez Molina of the immunity from prosecution he enjoyed as an elected official, and forced him, in his own words, to “continue with the due process and … submit to justice.”

Submitting to justice had been the missing ingredient in efforts to promote the rule of law in Central America. For decades, the United States, European stakeholders, and multilateral donors poured millions of dollars into modernizing legal systems; rewriting laws and writing new ones; and, in some cases, improving courts’ physical infrastructure and administration. International assistance trained thousands of prosecutors, police, investigators, forensic experts, and judges. Foreign assistance also helped countries to establish special anticorruption commissions, convene judicial and police reform councils, and invite international experts to study, evaluate, and recommend improvements to justice systems.

The impact of all these efforts is blunted, however, when the politically or economically powerful can sidestep responsibility for their actions. An anticorruption commission is useless if its members simply ensure that political and economic elites are exempt from investigation. Trained prosecutors and judges are effective only if they are allowed to act independently from elites who seek impunity. Enacted laws, whether new ones or revised old ones, do not guarantee rule of law if a president or cabinet minister can place a phone call to the judge or prosecutor he or she appointed to redirect an investigation or threaten to replace the appointee.

When each successive finding was announced by the CICIG and the attorney general, the popular outcry across the political spectrum grew louder, with poor Mayans from the Guatemalan highlands joining middle-class professionals from the big cities in public protest. 

But in Guatemala in September 2015, President Pérez Molina’s resignation culminated a five-month movement in which ordinary Guatemalan citizens took to the streets in outrage over a corruption scandal involving a network of corrupt officials in the country’s tax and customs office. Known as “La Linea,” the network that allegedly took bribes and kickbacks from would-be importers to Guatemala extended all the way into the president’s and vice president’s offices. The investigation of La Linea, undertaken by the CICIG working alongside Guatemala’s attorney general, amassed extensive evidence. What was significant was not the discovery of corruption — Guatemalans view their government as very corrupt, and Transparency International ranks Guatemala 123 out of 168 in the perception of government corruption — but the fact that a powerful politician and former military leader had been held accountable while still in office. Most corrupt officials, if they are prosecuted at all, face justice only after they leave office and lose immunity. And often, only the unlucky few, the scapegoats, are taken to task for their corruption.

The CICIG’s unique dual role made it possible to form the case against a sitting president. As an international body, the CICIG had the financial and political independence to create a buffer between the attorney general’s office and corrupt officials who might try to impede the investigation. As an agency of highly skilled investigators, partnered with the Guatemalan attorney general, it had the capacity to conduct a complex, technically sound investigation. When each successive finding was announced by the CICIG and the attorney general, the popular outcry across the political spectrum grew louder, with poor Mayans from the Guatemalan highlands joining middle-class professionals from the big cities in public protest. The call for justice transcended political and social divides, leading Guatemalans of all stripes to demand an end to corruption and call for an honest and accountable government.

The Glimmer Spreads

The reverberations of Guatemala’s historic case were felt in Honduras and El Salvador almost immediately. In major Honduran cities, a spontaneous movement of students and professionals took to the streets in April 2015, demanding the formation of a CICIG-like mechanism. The marchers became known as the “Indignados,” or the indignant ones, because of their outrage over the scandal in the public health system.

The message is clear: the fight against corruption is gaining momentum in Central America, and the international community is watching.

The Honduran government, however, asserted that it could create its own anticorruption system without outside intervention, and that the CICIG in Guatemala had undermined official institutions by assuming state functions. But the CICIG had not had an independent prosecutorial authority: under Guatemalan law, it was able to be a “co-prosecutor” by working alongside Guatemalan authorities to investigate allegations of corruption and bring a case before a magistrate. The CICIG’s outsider status offered a political firewall that let Guatemalan prosecutors undertake cases involving the country’s most powerful. Its political and technical assistance improved the capacity of Guatemalan prosecutors to analyze criminal networks, conduct phone taps within legal parameters, develop scientific evidence, guarantee the evidentiary chain of custody, and create a witness protection program. All these advances, and more, have a chance to take root today because of the role that the international community played in creating the political space for Guatemala’s justice system to grow and strengthen.

Ultimately, in a compromise, Honduras sought out the Organization of American States (OAS) to develop a support mechanism for its anticorruption efforts, known as the MACCIH (in English, the Support Mechanism to Confront Corruption and Impunity in Honduras). Although the MACCIH may not have all the authority of the CICIG, it includes — thanks to OAS efforts in the negotiations — an international body of experts that can select cases to be investigated, and it will establish a new anticorruption prosecution unit whose members are vetted and supervised by the MACCIH. The MACCIH was formally launched on February 22, 2016, under the leadership of a former Peruvian prime minister and diplomat, with the hope that it can have an impact in Honduras akin to the CICIG’s impact in Guatemala.

El Salvador, moreover, recently announced that it is negotiating with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to create a mechanism to fight corruption. Details on this effort have not been reported, but the message is clear: the fight against corruption is gaining momentum in Central America, and the international community is watching.

Support from abroad, as well as from a country’s own citizens, is needed to combat corruption and impunity where criminal interests have penetrated justice systems and the rule of law has succumbed to the machinations of political and economic elites. That support must meet the threats to independent justice systems and resist the power of elites, even as it strengthens the capacity of local institutions. This is the glimmer of hope for the rule of law in Central America. Such initiatives, if nurtured, may reverse the cycle of violence and state failure afflicting the nations of Central America and many other countries across the globe.

Eric L. Olson is Associate Director of the Latin American Program and Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute on security policy.  His work has focused on governmental responses to the threats of organized crime, violence, and corruption.

(Protestas por corrupción en Guatemala by Surizar is licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0)

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About the Author

Eric L. Olson

Eric L. Olson

Global Fellow;
Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives, Seattle International Foundation
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Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more